Reimagining public spaces is not just a matter of investing in upgraded infrastructure or launching new programming — it’s a matter of fundamentally changing the way we design, operate, and manage these spaces. Because research shows that vibrant public spaces are essential to social connection and economic mobility, cities that manage assets as a connected portfolio (rather than treating them as discrete spaces) can create a richer, more vibrant, more participatory public realm.
Managing assets in this new way requires a new way of working within and between the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Over the past three years, Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration projects in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia have brought together people from city government, local philanthropy, non-profits, and neighborhoods to invest in and reinvigorate public spaces in a way that is more collaborative, more holistic, and more attentive to the voices of residents than the status quo approach.
The work on these demonstration projects revealed nine principles to guide cities’ investments in public spaces to connect people and improve neighborhoods. In addition, a series of short case studies documents how these principles translate into action. But Reimagining the Civic Commons has lessons about public life in all its forms, including policy. They are:
- Projects move at the speed of trust
- Expertise comes in many forms
- Failure is essential to innovation
- New ways of working require new measures of success
Projects move at the speed of trust
“I’m a white person in a primarily African American neighborhood. If I come in and try to do things that I think are right to the community, that creates a huge breakdown of trust because who am I to know what’s best for the community? Spending time with people and learning and listening was the best thing that I could do. I’m still doing that.” — Philadephia team member
A common thread in interviews for the case studies was the way past incidents have degraded trust in cities. Sometimes these incidents were obvious and shocking: a 1921 massacre Tulsa that destroyed “Black Wall Street” and took the lives of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of black residents, or the gut-punch of Confederate statues which, until late 2017, stood in places of honor in downtown parks in Memphis. In Akron, Washington DC, Detroit, and Philadelphia trust disintegrated amidst the grinding daily insults of disinvestment and broken promises of neighborhood improvement.
Without trust, it’s impossible to create vibrant, welcoming public spaces, and restoring it takes time and sustained attention. As one Civic Commons team member in Akron noted, “There’s this expectation that you’re going to move quickly, but you can’t do that when there is this gulf of mistrust… The question was how might we build trust but at the same time test ideas? They go hand in hand. If you’re testing ideas that are coming from the neighbors and the residents, then you put the building blocks together to start to build trust.” Project teams worked on early wins, such as benches, shelters and grills at Summit Lake in Akron and temporary greenways and bike lanes near Detroit’s Fitzgerald Park. These early and often inexpensive successes drew residents’ attention and showed that — finally — someone was delivering changes that they wanted.
But early wins were just the beginning of a long, difficult process. In Washington DC, the 11th Street Bridge Park team spent two years talking to residents about whether they even wanted a park. In another city, meetings were for “pain listening,” not decision-making: “There would be times… where all we did was listen to how they’ve been hurt, how their communities have been torn apart by infrastructure, by highways, by roads…” Though inefficient by conventional standards, this approach eventually overcame residents’ well-founded skepticism that change in their neighborhoods would benefit them.
Governments — the primary builders and stewards of public places — have a tricky relationship with efficiency, as Eric Gordon has written. Some aspects of government (like the DMV) are transactional and should be as efficient as possible. But other elements depend on a relationship, a conversation, a meaningful exchange between people and government. Public places should be created from and give rise to relationships, not transactions. Relationships entail histories, conflict, complication, messiness, and inefficiency. That’s something to be celebrated, not disparaged.
Expertise comes in many forms
“As planners and designers, we’re like, ‘Ooh, problems, let’s solve them!’ It’s important to take a step back first and [ask], ‘How are we defining and identifying this problem?’ And creating a space to be sure that you’re hearing from the community how they would define the problem… because it might not be obvious as an outsider. What are the existing assets? Who are the people to know? It’s the block club leaders but also Dennis who hangs out on that corner and keeps an eye on everything that happens.” — Detroit team member
City governments, non-profits, and philanthropies have applied technical expertise to neighborhood challenges for decades, with mixed results. Most of the time, outside “experts” made and implemented plans for improvement — and “outreach” or “engagement” meant presenting fully formed plans to the public.
Civic Common’s approach expanded the definition of expertise, valuing residents’ deep understanding of what was working in their neighborhood and what wasn’t.
To tap into this local expertise, Civic Commons’ teams met residents where they lived: fewer slideshow presentations and community meetings, more open-air cookouts. When leaders of a Philadelphia community development corporation wanted to talk to residents about green economic development, they set up a barbeque grill in different spots around the neighborhood and invited people to eat and talk. “People have really liked those because there’s conversations, there’s food,” said the CDC director. “It’s a small atmosphere and the ability to be able to talk and share and not be talked to, but be talked with.” In Detroit, the Civic Commons team put chairs, tables, and easels in vacant lots, grilled hot dogs, and talked with people as they walked by.
In Washington DC, the 11th Street Bridge Park literally values local expertise: residents who co-lead workshops on community leadership and empowerment are paid for their time. “I wouldn’t ask a consultant to come in and work for free, so we shouldn’t ask the community to work for free,” says one of the project leaders. In Philadelphia, a local funder also described their approach as, “We are going to value your expertise and resource you as experts, and by you, I mean community residents.”
It’s risky for people in governments and institutions to listen in new ways. Surrendering traditional expertise means exchanging hard-won status for humility, which is deeply uncomfortable. Taking people’s concerns seriously can jeopardize project timelines, budgets, and promised deliverables. Laws, regulations, or resource constraints might prevent an agency or non-profit from providing what people want or need. Different groups within the community could ask for incompatible things. And even if governments and institutions embrace those risks, they could undermine trust by not letting residents know how their input was used or not setting realistic expectations at the outset. But public life demands this kind of risk-taking, and the Civic Commons experience suggests that the gains are worth it: Many Civic Commons team members have made this (initially) slow, painstaking, method of starting by listening standard practice, whether they work in non-profit organizations or city government.
Failure is essential to innovation
“The failure [at the outset of the project] was early conditioning, part of getting in shape for this kind of work.… I don’t feel like we wasted any time, even on stuff that didn’t work, because we were told early on, ‘You’re going to fail, some things aren’t going to work.’ That was a big deal for us to accept because most of us aren’t wired to go into something saying, ‘Well, it might not work.’” — Akron local funder
In addition to adopting new metrics for success, we also need to support testing new ideas in the public sphere, which sometimes means failing at first. We often hear that there is zero tolerance for failure in local government, but evidence of failure is all around us, even in the most innovative, well-run cities. We need to swap our high tolerance for status quo failures for an embrace of new kinds of failure. Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman’s excellent book A New City O/S points out that technology allows government employees to work more creatively and responsively while being held accountable for what matters. To go further, local governments, non-profits, and philanthropies could encourage, and even reward, the failures that are essential for innovation and improvement. We won’t get the things we say we want from the public sector and in public life — more responsiveness, less bureaucracy, and more innovation — without failures along the way.
New ways of working require new measures of success
This last point did not come up directly in the case study interviews, so it’s a bit of editorializing. We will not get new outcomes with old ways of measuring people’s performance. All three of the practices above — moving slowly to build trust, sharing and surrendering expertise, and embracing early failures on the way to later successes — could be career-damaging in some environments. If we really want institutions that are relational rather than transactional, then we have to pay as much attention to measuring how well people connect and listen as we do to preventing waste, fraud, and abuse.
The promise of the civic commons
“For people to be outside and be with people they don’t know sharing joyful encounters… It is so magical to feel like you’re a part of that.” — Memphis team member
“It’s really, really rewarding when you are able to connect with the people who are benefiting from this program, one on one… Even coming in for a free concert on a Sunday evening, in a neighborhood that has very little access to the arts, can be so moving for people.” — Chicago team member
The promise of Reimagining the Civic Commons is the promise of cities themselves: Amazing things happen when people step out of their safe places of sameness and engage with something or someone different. In the realm of ideas, this engagement and exchange leads to innovation and invention. In the realm of social life, it leads to opportunity and economic mobility. And, at any given moment in a handful of public places throughout the country, it leads to connection, magic, and joy.
Thanks to Eric Gordon of Emerson College Engagement Lab for the idea of meaningful inefficiencies; Indy Johar of Dark Matter Labs for his observations on metrics and behavior change; Jessica Lee at Intentional Futures for her authorship of the Reimagining the Civic Commons case studies and thoughtful interviews; Deborah Marton of the New York Restoration Project for her insights on public space, democracy, and relationship; and the interviewees for a previous project on co-creation and civic engagement who taught me about the challenges of listening.